From Goal Focused Meditation to Natural Awareness

Diana Winston, in her most recent book, The Little Book of Being, differentiates between two main forms of meditation.  One meditation approach Diana identifies as the classical method – requiring considerable effort and focused on an object (e.g. breath or sound) and a goal (e.g. calmness, self-management, stress reduction); the other is focused on what she terms “natural awareness”.  She makes the point early in the book that in her early meditation practice she exhausted herself and became depressed and self-loathing by falling into the trap of becoming overly goal and object focused.  Her personal release came with the realisation of the power of natural awareness.  Her teaching is built on many years of personal meditation practice and deep insight into what enables people to live life fully and to be their authentic self.

When Diana became Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA) she was determined to introduce other people to the practice of natural awareness.  Her book shows the evolution in her thinking and practice and her conclusion that people should practise both classical meditation and natural awareness as they are mutually reinforcing and complementary.   Classical meditation builds the power of focus and concentration together with present-centred awareness required to develop the habit of natural awareness. 

The nature of natural awareness

The approach to meditation that Diana promotes is called natural awareness because it entails practising what we experience naturally.  People can recall their own experiences of being in the moment, just being somewhere, or being in the zone in a sports or work arena.  Awareness is a natural capacity that has been diminished over time and lost in the fog of our own self-stories and beliefs, the incessant distractions drawing us away from the present moment and the time urgency that drives our goal-directed behaviour.  We become time-poor, driven (e.g. as reflected in impatient driver behaviour) and focused on the past or the future – leading to a form of depression or anxiety.  Natural awareness offers instead a sense of letting go – resulting in restfulness and equanimity.  Loch Kelly, In an interview with Tami Simon, describes natural awareness as effortless mindfulness.

According to Diana, natural awareness is a way of knowing and a state of being wherein our focus is on awareness itself rather than on things we are aware of (p.12). She offers a series of “markers” you can use to test whether you have experienced natural awareness (p.13).

Recollection: a starting point for natural awareness

Diana offers a recollection exercise as an introduction to natural awareness – using memories to recapture past, personal experience of natural awareness. The basic approach is to recall a time (in a relaxed way, not forced) when you had a sense of just being – experiencing heightened attention, a strong sense of connection, openness to what was happening or a profound sense of peace. The occasion could be viewing a sunrise/sunset, experiencing awe in the presence of pounding waves, a burst of creativity, a joyful conversation with a friend or being in natural surrounds where the beauty is breathtaking.

Now try to capture the time and experience in all its detail – where you were, what you were doing, feeling and sensing (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). The final step is to tap into what is happening for you with this recollection, e.g. tranquility, connection or ease. You can then rest in this awareness.

As we grow in mindfulness, through classical meditation and specific natural awareness practices, our capacity for inner and outer awareness expands and natural awareness becomes accessible to us on a daily/hourly basis.

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Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How Can We Manage When Our Daughter or Son is in Pain?


Susan Piver
, Creator of the Open Heart Project, addresses this question in response to an inquiry from one of her many followers. The danger when someone very close to us is suffering, is that we are tempted to take on their pain, to be so empathetic that we treat their suffering as if it is our own.

This identification with the sufferer was the very problem raised by Susan’s follower in relation to her daughter’s pain:

How do we prevent ourselves from hurting on behalf of the other person?…. Her pain feels like my pain, and makes me so upset and sad. 

Susan’s response is given by way of a brief input and a guided meditation. She asserts that you cannot prevent yourself from feeling the pain of someone close to you – to do so would stop you from feeling anything. You would effectively turn off your feelings to protect yourself but in the process destroy what makes us essentially human – the capacity to feel and be compassionate.

The damaging effects of closing your heart to pain

Susan uses the analogy of a gate which has two positions – open and closed. So our heart, or our feeling with and for another, tends to be in one or other of these positions – either open hearted or closed. Susan deliberately called her life’s work the Open Heart Project because it is essentially designed to help people to open up to the full range of their experience – beauty and darkness, happiness and pain, freedom and restraint.

Susan paints a graphic picture of the difference between an open heart and one that is closed by describing the difference as that “between awake and asleep, alive and numb, present and deluded”. She suggests, however, that you cannot just be totally identified with the other person’s pain – you have to be able to achieve a separation from the other’s suffering – not own the suffering of another. Richard Davidson describes this capacity as “social cognition” which his research into the science of compassion demonstrates is essential for the “balance and welfare” of the person observing the suffering.

Susan cautions that we need to be conscious of the “toll” that feeling for another’s suffering has on ourselves. In her view, shutting off our own pain to protect our self is really self-damaging because it numbs us. The way forward is to feel the pain but actively engage in genuine self-care, whatever form that can take for you personally (this could involve exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, prayer, time with family and/or friends, accessing social/professional support or a combination of these).

Managing through compassion meditation

One of the benefits of being able to manage the pain you experience when your daughter or son is suffering is that it lays the foundation, or “pathway” as Susan describes it, to genuine compassion for others. This capacity for genuine compassion can be further developed through different forms of compassion meditation. Daniel Goleman and his neuroscience colleagues have demonstrated through research that compassion meditation develops in people an “altered trait” that is evidenced through increased kindness and generosity.

Compassion meditation, often described as loving kindness meditation, frequently begins with extending kind thoughts to someone close to you, progressing to an acquaintance, to someone you have heard about or a group of people experiencing some form of suffering and finally taking in someone you find difficult. This expanding expression of compassion can be underpinned by self-compassion meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the pain and suffering of those close to us. If we shut off these empathetic feelings, we can numb ourselves to the full range of human experience and prevent ourselves from expressing our feelings. Active self-care is essential to manage the personal toll of being empathetic and maintaining an open heart. Compassion meditation can build our capacity to sustain compassionate action not only for those closest to us but to everyone, whether we like them or not.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Trust and Your Sense of Belonging

Tara Brach in a video presentation on Basic Trust highlights the importance of trust and a sense of belonging in our lives. She stresses the role of trust in shaping our view of ourselves, the quality of our relationships and our perception of the world around us. Tara contrasts this positive sense with the distrust and sense of separation that can pervade our view of ourselves, others we encounter and the world at large.

The sense of separation versus the sense of belonging

Tara suggests that our sense of separation is part of our evolutionary condition – we develop a sense of our separate self very early on. However, our culture and our parental influences can potentially drive a wedge between ourselves and our sense of belonging. If in our early stage of development, our needs are not recognised or met, we begin to sense that we are “not good enough” – we begin to feel separation and distrust. Our culture stresses the importance of “making it” – whether in terms of economic status, job role, relationship status or intelligence levels. If we have not made it in terms of cultural expectations, then we feel we are not a genuine part of our group or community.

If we are different at school – failing to fall into the narrow band of children gifted with left-brain intelligence – we can feel less than others, even though we may excel at other forms of intelligence, such as spatial intelligene or musical intelligence. If our personality is different from the dominant personality type in our work organisation, we can feel less than others or even a “misfit”.

There are many ways we can receive messages about our separateness or not being good enough to belong. Many religions reinforce our “sinfulness” or unworthiness, highlighting what is deficient in us rather than what is good and kind in our nature. As we feel a sense of separateness, we tend to build up our defences to protect our fragile ego and this can lead to a tendency to only see the defects in others, to become blinded to what is good in them.

A sense of belonging builds trust

Much of what we hear about ourselves and reinforce in our own narratives, is that we do not belong. However, if we can develop a sense of our own goodness and that of others we can learn to trust ourselves and those around us and be less ego-driven and self-protective. Tara suggests a brief meditation to highlight our sense of belonging that involves several core questions:

  • To what extent do we belong to our bodies (accepting them as they are)?
  • How much are we in touch with our own heart and kind feelings?
  • How strong is our feeling of belonging in our significant relationship?
  • Do we experience a sense of belonging in our family?
  • How much are we connected to the people around us, in our work or our community?
Developing a sense of trust and belonging

The absence of trust impacts our sense of belonging.  However, we can build our sense of trust in ourselves and others by meditating on (1) our inherent goodness and (2) the goodness in others.  We can become aware of our inherent goodness by focusing on our appreciation of beauty in nature, in music, or in art; by a sense of gratitude for kindnesses extended to ourselves or others; by experiencing a collective sense of joy when someone overcomes adversity; or by valuing the connection with family or friends.

Our sense of our own goodness can be realised through the experience of positive emotions through music or musical performances.  We can perceive our own thoughtfulness when we go out of our way to help someone in need.  Our essential goodness is evident when we appreciate when someone else has a achieved mastery of some skill or activity.  It is at times like these that we feel “at home” with ourselves and who we are.

Tara provides a brief guided meditation (at the 31.55min. mark) that helps us to feel good about ourselves and identify the goodness in others around us.  She strongly suggests that we share our appreciation of others with them directly – we all need reinforcement of our essential goodness to build our trust and sense of belonging. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on the inherent goodness of ourselves and others, we experience a freedom from the binds of negative self-evaluation and become more open to acts of kindness and creative use of our core skills and knowledge in the service of others.  Meditation helps us to “lift the veil” on our goodness and to see ourselves as we really are in our essence.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Post-Holiday Blues

If you have recently returned from a holiday away, the normal reaction is to focus on the loss resulting from your return home.  You might miss the break away from work and home responsibilities, the free time, the opportunity to see new things, meet new people and have time to yourself.

People often feel sad at the end of a holiday, wishing they had made better use of their break, visited some particular attraction or brought a particular item of clothing that they really liked.

So we can experience depression by focusing on our recent past holiday which invariably “seemed to go all too quickly”.

You might also not be looking forward to the responsibilities of work, the time pressures, the repetition that is present in any job, the pressure to produce, unfinished business from the time before you went away and the inevitable conflict with one or more colleagues, staff or clients/ customers.

This focus, in turn, can make us anxious as we look to the future and all the demands we expect to be placed on us.

Alternatively, we can avoid depression and anxiety by focusing on the present moment, appreciating what we do have – health, home, family, work and friends.

We could express gratitude for the time we did have away, all the individual activities that brought joy and happiness, the highlights that we really value and the. companionship we enjoyed.

We could focus on the precious moments when we were able to stop and be mindful in the presence of nature’s stunning variety and beauty, the ingenuity of men and women, the artistry of sculptors and artists of long ago or the magnificence of architecture we observed.

We might also express empathy and compassion for those who had real loss and grief during the holiday period – the loss of family members through accidents or illness or suicide, the break-up of an intimate relationship or a fracture of the relationship with a son or daughter or other family member.

Appreciating what we do have, being grateful for what we were able to experience on our holiday and/or thinking empathetically about others and their loss, can take us outside of our self-focus and enable us to experience the richness of the present moment in our lives.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to savour the present moment and avoid depression resulting from a focus on the past or anxiety arising from a focus on the future.

We can learn a lot from Holly Butcher who died on 4 January 2018, at the age of 27, from a rare form of cancer and had written a powerful letter just before her death which her family published on her Facebook page the day she died.  Some of her comments are especially relevant for the topic of this blog post:

Those times you are whinging about ridiculous things (something I have noticed so much these past few months), just think about someone who is really facing a problem. Be grateful for your minor issue and get over it. It’s okay to acknowledge that something is annoying but try not to carry on about it and negatively effect other people’s days…

I hear people complaining about how terrible work is or about how hard it is to exercise – Be grateful you are physically able to. Work and exercise may seem like such trivial things … until your body doesn’t allow you to do either of them.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

 

Looking For Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere if we just look out for it.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, we tend to become focused on negative news, rather than positive stories.  Inspiration leads to health and well-being, while negative-oriented news creates distraction and emotional disturbance – especially where events are sensationalised to create the maximum emotional impact.

One of the very helpful sources of inspirational stories is TED Talks – an endless source of video presentations on every conceivable topic by numerous people from different corners of the world who have achieved much to improve the human condition.

One such talk was given by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi – What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death?  In this outstanding presentation, Lucy discusses how she and her husband Paul, a neuroscientist, coped with the knowledge that at the age of 37 he was dying from Stage IV lung cancer.

In her optimistic -and sometimes humourous – talk, Lucy makes some key points:

  • the critical importance to keep talking to each other, with no topic off limits
  • realising that the person who is dying must work to reshape their identity
  • making conscious choices together about ongoing health care
  • learning to accept the pain of your dying partner
  • finding beauty and purpose amidst the sadness
  • learning that resilience, in this situation, means bouncing back to real living without denying the reality of impending death.

The video of the presentation by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is given below:

Besides building bonfires on the beach and watching the sunset with her friends, Lucy found that “exercise and mindfulness meditation helped a lot” after Paul’s death.

Both Paul and Lucy were noted for their compassion towards others. As they were able to grow in mindfulness through this compassion and their intense living-in-the moment, they were better able to cope with the reality of Paul’s terminal illness.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of martythelewis on Pixabay

Trees as Sources of Meditation

Every tree is different – it has its own aura, energy field, colour, shape, life story and natural beauty.

Individual trees can be a great source of meditation – they embody many of the dilemmas of human existence.

It’s Jacaranda time in Brisbane when these trees cover the city with their purple blossoms.  It is also a time of dread for many children because it signals the approaching period of school exams.

I am reminded that some time ago I wrote a poem about Jacarandas when meditating on a particular tree.

The poem goes like this:

                  Radiant Beauty

Resplendent purple, a carpet of colour

Fully clothed in regal garment

Refreshing hue, eye-catching glow

Noticed from above and below

Radiant beauty, swiftly shed.

The Jacaranda tree was standing in the middle of a park covered in its distinctive purple blossoms – resplendent purple, fully clothed in regal garment.

Wherever you walk in Brisbane at this time of the year you will be walking below the refreshing hue and eye-catching glow of the Jacaranda. It’s an amazing sight when seen from below.  It is even more amazing when seen from above –noticed from above and below.  From the air, the whole city appears carpeted in purple.

One of the characteristics of this type of tree is that its purple blossoms last for such a short time – radiant beauty, swiftly shed.  It is a constant reminder that human beauty is ephemeral – so transitory, yet pursued endlessly by many people as if it defines a person’s worth.

As the Jacaranda trees shed their purple blossoms, they create a carpet of colour as illustrated in the image below:

If we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindful practices, we will be able to see beyond transitory, external beauty and see the real essence of a person.  We will learn to value each person’s uniqueness and their life story – just as we learn to value our own.

Image source:

Park Bench by Indy24 on Pixabay

 

Grow Mindfulness through Nature

 

Nature is a wonderful source of mindfulness.  We so often look at something in nature but don’t see the beauty that is there.  One way to really appreciate nature and all it has to offer is to adopt “open awareness” – to take in the sounds, sights, colours, smells, contours and touch sensations.

So often we walk past the opportunity to be mindful in the presence of nature – we overlook the connectedness that is in front of us.  As Louie Schwartzberg reminds us – every living creature is dependent on some other living entity for its survival.

We so often fail to appreciate what is before us – the changing nature of the sky with each passing moment.  We miss the varying hues, the different cloud formations, the sun drenched waters that emerge with sunrise or the deepening shadows occurring with sunsets. We pass off the weather as “good” or “bad”, ascribing some personal value to it based on our own convenience or inconvenience at the time.

Louie Schwartzberg, the famous time-lapse photographer, reminds us to be grateful when we encounter the beauty of nature:

Louie argues that nature is a pathway to mindfulness if we are open to, and appreciative of, its beauty.